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28th Jan 2020

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Europeans to be taught about failure and risk-taking

  • Europeans need to be prepared to take more risks, say experts (Photo: doug88888)

The European Institute of Innovation of Technology (EIT) is a classic example of what can happen to a big idea once it runs the gauntlet of the EU's 27 member states.

The brainchild of European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso back in 2005, the EIT was to be the European Union's answer to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the prestigious American university home to some of that country's finest scientific minds.

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But member states did not play ball. They sniped about the pretensions behind the idea and at the cost. Deans from well established universities looked down their noses that this potential competitor for the spotlight. What emerged was typically EU - a messy compromise with just shadows of the original idea.

Instead of a centralised campus, there is now a network of 'knowledge and information communities (KICs)' - an umbrella term for co-operation between business, academia and research - with an administrative headquarters in Budapest.

Although over half a decade has passed since the idea was first mooted, and, in the interim, EU politicians have begun to talk in existentialist terms about the bloc's under-performing economy, getting the EIT to its feet has been a painfully slow process.

But earlier this year, the final of the preliminary three specialist research areas (KICs) was approved.

They will focus on tailoring education, research and business in the areas of climate change, clean energy and information technologies. The research will be carried out in various member states and then commercialised in an innovation centre.

The KICs will work to an annual business plan with 25 percent of their money coming from EU funding and the rest from partner organisations. The business feel features right through to the titles. The heads of the KICs are called CEOs, even though they come from a research or academic background.

Doing useful research

The hope is that injecting a bit of business oomph into the process will put an end to Europe's ivory tower approach to research.

"In many funding programmes in [the European Commission's] Directorate-General Research, you throw a certain amount of money at a certain group for specific research and that's it. Everybody then reports back nicely on what they have being doing with the money, what kind of books they have written etc, and then nothing happens," said Professor Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of the Belgium-based League of European Research Universities.

A measure of EIT's success will be how many new companies are set up or new products developed directly as a result of the institution.

But a deeper cultural change is also needed if the next Google or Facebook is to come from the Old Continent. Europeans need to be turned into risk-takers who are not afraid of failure.

Accepting failure

"Entrepreneurship also comes with failure and an acceptance of failure - that only by trial and error can one become a successful entrepreneur. This kind of entrepreneurial culture you see in the US, you also see it in Asia but to a lesser extent in Europe," said Ronald de Bruin, acting director of the EIT.

He points to the educational programmes already in place that give students an EIT diploma at the end.

Deketelaere agreed that the "educational part of things are going very well," but said the most important task for the EIT is to make sure the KICs deliver concrete results and that researchers are not shackled by box-ticking bureaucracy.

"There must be enough flexibility to adjust your research line on the basis of what you discover," he noted.

With a relatively small budget of €308 million until the end of 2012, the EIT is hoping for a much bigger slice of the budget come 2014.

New research areas are already being suggested, including biotechnology, health in childhood, and security and safety. But the potential for duplicated research, too many bosses or just plain old disagreement is ripe.

Healthy ageing, a new research area suggested by the EIT, is also the subject of a pilot project by research commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quin and various member-state programmes.

To make matters a bit more complicated, the EIT also falls under the responsibility of education commissioner Andorulla Vasiliou and not Geoghegan-Quin. Commission departments have been known to work in blissful unawareness of what other departments are doing.

"We must be sure there is streamlining and harmonisation of the different approach to topics," said Deketelaere. "It's a question of making sure that if we spend money it is money well spent."

De Bruin promises that a more rigorous, business approach will be applied throughout the EIT, including to the KICs, which have a lifespan of seven years.

"We must also accept failure. We must accept the fact that if KICs are not successful, then they will be phased out," he said.

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